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Pound for pound: A look into Filipino boxing culture

As one of the Philippines’ most popular sports, boxing remains as an influential presence to our culture.

After the Philippines’ Olympic feats in boxing—with two silvers and a bronze of the four medals in Tokyo 2020—the sport has been at the forefront of mainstream Filipino news. Although even before the historic Olympic run, boxing has been one of the country’s most popular sports. Despite the impact of basketball and volleyball in the country, boxing was one of the first sports that put the Philippines on a pedestal internationally.

Remembering the greats

If asked when boxing started to be a mainstay in Filipino culture, many Filipinos today would claim that it was when retired boxer Sen. Manny “PacMan” Pacquiao dominated the world stage in the 2000s and the 2010s.

Pacquiao may have elevated Filipino boxing to unprecedented heights but the foundations of success were built way before his time, with boxing analysts Quinito Henson and Atty. Ed Tolentino sharing that boxers like Pancho Villa in the 1920s, Ceferino Garcia in the 1930s, and Gabriel “Flash” Elorde in the 1960s became world champions in their respective divisions. For both Henson and Tolentino, the said boxing champs paved the way for the next generation of athletes to reach even greater heights.

When Pacquiao rose to fame, however, he took up the mantle as the new Pinoy boxing champion and surpassed all expectations by becoming the only eight-division world champion in the sport’s history. It was through his record that he eventually cemented his place as one of the world’s greatest boxers of all time.

While these legends provided a path other athletes could follow, the evolution of Filipino boxing cannot be solely credited to their legacies. The innovations of training strategies and technologies have ultimately reshaped the landscape of the sport.

This development in boxing should be welcomed as it now represents a vital tool that would allow athletes to pinpoint specific areas that maximize skill progression. Henson cites Don Abnett, who became Australia’s national boxing coach in 2019, and how he “transformed the character” of the national boxing athletes—from being a team that tried to get by in between fights to becoming a team that “always looked at the bigger picture.” “He introduced a lot of sports science and technology in producing world-class fighters,” he adds.

Tolentino also attributes the development of better boxers today to efforts of adopting new ways of training and balancing nutrition programs. Some examples include how American strength and conditioning coach Nick Curson introduced Jonas Sultan to a new diet that regulated his fat, carbohydrate, and protein consumption and how Pacquiao’s coach, Justin Fortune, gradually adjusted the type of food and the amount of calories he ate as he got older. In Sultan’s case, the new diet helped him, not only physically wherein he recovered more easily from training, but also mentally because the freedom to eat more to gain the needed weight for his bouts lifted his spirits. For Pacquiao, the adjustment of his calorie intake contributed to maintaining a high level of play despite being way past his prime, even outlasting an undefeated Keith Thurman at the age of 40.

Furthermore, developments were not only restricted to the fighting aspect of the sport. An example is how Pacquiao’s right-hand man, Sean Gibbons, continues to have a substantial impact in the industry by simply using his network. Connecting athletes to opportunities, he allows today’s up-and-coming boxers to step into the ring and to showcase their skills. “He has given opportunities…for all these other fighters, especially during this pandemic, to be able to fight for big purses and to be able to fight for world championships,” Henson notes. Among those he helped include Jerwin Ancajas, John Riel Casimero, Mark Magsayo, and Jason Mama—a big deal given that sports activities have been minimal to none since 2020.

Witnessing journeys transpire

For Henson, boxing becoming a staple to the Filipino folk is the fruit of its “tremendous appeal to the global audience.” Nowadays, a pay-per-view fight can empty streets on a Sunday morning, with Filipinos worldwide tuning in despite hectic schedules. But behind the glory of the sporting world lies a harsh reality: everyone does not start off on the same footing.

Being an underdog most especially appeals to Filipinos who come from humble beginnings and then excel and grow into successful individuals. Tolentino affirms this, saying that “Filipinos identify with the [stories of others].”

Filipino boxers show grit, determination, and fortitude—all of which are core Filipino values. As individuals who represent the country, it is given that they carry these values with them. Tolentino stresses, “The resiliency and unwavering belief of our boxers in their capabilities are just some of the traits that appeal to the public.”

However, ideals and character can only do so much. For Filipino boxer Joe Nonay, what motivated him to pursue boxing was his family—“so that they would get out of poverty,” he shares. In his case, boxing offers a chance to at least get by in a third world country like the Philippines.

For professional Filipino boxers, they can have yearly payouts of approximately P500,000 to P2,000,000, depending on how many local and international fights they have in a year. In contrast, professional fighters in other countries can have an annual salary of approximately USD2.6 million. In situations like Nonay’s, fights are funded by the event promoters since professional bouts attract both private and public funding.

Despite the seemingly disadvantageous circumstances, Filipino boxers still manage to give their all in every fight, not letting anything hinder them from attaining success.

Outside the ring

The glory of Filipino boxing is once again at its peak. The recent Olympic showing of Nesthy Petecio, Carlo Paalam, and Eumir Marcial were the “results of advancements in training and nutrition, including foreign coaches chiseling our boxers to perfection after all,” states Tolentino.

Even from Nonay’s point of view, “Filipino boxers are thriving in the field of boxing.”

Moving forward, it is safe to say that boxing is in good hands. Henson shares that the reason for this stems from the continuous support from the Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines. He comments, “If a fighter has the talent and potential to become a champion but you don’t give him the coaching and the direction, nothing will happen.”

But this is exactly what the analyst is trying to point out: those who support the endeavors of Filipino boxers and the industry have married guidance and good leadership with the raw talent of our athletes. These have led to the nurturing of the boxing culture in the country as well, which gives credit to what is beyond the successes we record. “We’re lucky that in the federation, we have [support],” he ends.

Ultimately, we can attest that the success of Filipino boxing today is the culmination of the work done for nearly a century by the boxers themselves, their coaches, the federations that support them, and innovation. Without just one of these, the country’s boxing industry would not be where it is now.

By Aren Reyes

By Koby del Rosario

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